The Ringling Estate Delivers
Five Diverse Visitor Experiences:
World-Class Art, Circus Memorabilia, a Rose Garden, a Historic Theater and an Italian Villa Await in Sarasota, FL
The lovely Italian villa, Ca d'Zan, was the home of John and Mable Ringling of circus fame. The Ringlings were world-class art collectors and fans of everything Italian. Today, Ca d'Zan is open for touring.
By Susan J. Young
Just off Florida's Sarasota Bay, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and Ringling Estate is a “five-in-one” experience. This 66-acre estate (as demonstrated by the gorgeous loggia of the art museum below right*) is now a sparkling jewel.
But only a decade ago, that wasn't the case. John Ringling -- preceded in death by his wife Mable in 1929 -- died in 1936. He bequeathed the entire estate and his art museum to the State of Florida, believing his gift would bring great joy to future generations.
But serious problems developed for the estate during the 20th century. Decades of poor endowment fund management left virtually no funds for maintenance. The estate’s aging buildings were crumbling.
As a result, the Ringling’s home, the Ca d’Zan mansion, had to be closed in the late 1990s for a $15 million renovation that required six years to complete.
The historic Asolo Theater’s building was actually condemned. The art museum roof leaked.
Fortunately, in 2000, governance of the estate was transferred from the State of Florida to Florida State University. Through the vision of FSU President Sandy D’Alemberte, a new master plan was developed.
Today, more than $140 million has been invested on repairs, refurbishment, upgrades and, in some cases, expansion.
For example, a new visitor’s center and a second circus building opened in 2006. A new wing for the art museum opened in 2007.
If you visit, you’ll find this west central Florida attraction something truly special. You could spend a few hours or an entire day or more here.
Here is our first-hand look at the five separate visitor experiences you’ll encounter on a visit.
Experience One: Ca d’Zan
The Ringling estate houses John and Mable’s treasured Italian style villa, called Ca d’Zan (shown at right*).
Completed in 1926, it’s an architectural stunner.
The Ringlings loved Venice, Italy, and so designed a mansion that combined the grandeur of the Doge’s Palace in Venice with the gothic grace of the Ca d’Oro. Sarasota Bay became this villa’s “Grand Canal”
The villa’s marble terrace and back steps cascade down to the bay. Its interior boasts superb Italian furnishings. And, if you opt for a tour that carries an extra charge, you can climb the home’s tower for stunning views of Sarasota Bay.
In its heyday in the late 1920s, the Ringlings held lavish parties in the mansion's main-level living area (shown at left*), on the marble terrace and on the mansion grounds.
Guests included entertainer Flo Ziegfeld, comedian Will Rogers, and New York Mayor Jimmy Walker. The mansion became the epi-center of societal life on Florida’s west central coast.
Constructed from terra cotta T-blocks, concrete and brick, the villa is covered with stucco and terra cotta and embellished with glazed tile. The original roof was made from 16th century Spanish tiles.
The home is 200 feet long and encompasses 22,000 square feet. The Ringlings had plenty of room for guests with 32 rooms and 15 bathrooms.
But Mable died in 1929 so the mansion’s glory days were limited. When the mansion was restored, archival photographs were used to assess the original look of each room. Paint samples were taken from the mansion to determine precise colors. Original paintings and furnishings were retrieved from storage and restored, re-gilded or given new fabric as needed.
The fabulous ceiling murals – created by Hungarian born illustrator and Ziegfield Follies set designer, Willy Pogany – were lovingly restored. The chandelier that Ringling acquired from New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel was cleaned and repaired.
Even clothing preserved from the Ringlings’ wardrobe was moved back into closets and drawers.
A visitor feels as though the Ringlings lived here just yesterday.
One ingenious highlight of the mansion's creative styling is the Aeolian organ with 2,289 pipes. It’s installed in a chamber hidden by tapestries on the second-floor balcony.
Editor’s Note: A standard mansion tour of the ground floor is included in your admission. But definitely consider taking the more extensive, hour-long tour "Private Places Tour.”
Priced at an additional $20 per person ($10 for museum members), The Private Places Tour gives guided access to the Ringlings’ private quarters and guest rooms on the second floor, third and fourth floors, along with (weather permitting) the villa's 61-foot tower. From the top you'll have superb views of Sarasota Bay.
We loved the whimsical, third-floor game room on that Private Places tour. In this room, artist Willy Pogany was given free reign to paint figures from the Ringling household on the ceiling. Look closely and you’ll see John and Mable in Venetian Carnival costumes, their household pets and even the Ringling cockatoos!
Experience Two: World-Class Art Museum
The stunning gallery of Rubens paintings at the Ringling Museum of Art celebrates the artistry of the Dutch Masters.*
Throughout their lives, John and Mable Ringling indulged their love of beautiful things and artwork with passion. They also loved to travel and explore the world.
John Ringling, “Mr. John” as he was called, was a regular buyer at art auctions in New York and London. The result was a substantive collection of paintings, sculpture and other artwork.
Ringling purchased masterpieces by El Greco, Gainesborough, Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds, Tiepolo, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Valazquez and many others.
For example, visitors will peruse a 1625 era painting (shown at left) by Valazquez; it portrays Spain's King Philip IV. A 1765 painting of a British general (shown above) is by Gainesborough.*
He also bought “whole rooms” like the Astor Salon and Library from the New York Astor mansion. He even bought a collection of Cypriot antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1925, Ringling engaged John Phillips to design an Italian-styled palace for his art treasures. Construction began two years later but slowed by state and national economic woes. The art museum officially opened in 1931.
One of the art museum's loveliest spots is the Italianate courtyard (shown at right*), filled with greenery, fountains and replicas of Greek, Roman and Baroque statues.
You'll even find a replica of Michelangelo's David.
But inside the art museum, is the real treasure -- original works that rival anything fielded by big-city museums in New York or London.
While collecting art at auctions throughout the world and on visits to Europe, Ringling always had a soft spot for the Dutch masters. The Rubens gallery is stunning.
You'll also peruse ancient Greek urns, modern art, paintings by Spanish masters and Renaissance church art just to name a few of the draws.
In terms of size, the art museum is now among the Top 20 in North America.
In early 2007, the estate put the finishing touches on $76 million of restoration and expansion for the museum.
Its 21 permanent collection galleries (including the Italian Baroque gallery above*) received new, artistic hanging arrangements; new interior colors, text and labels for the artwork; and other structural improvements.
And, the new 20,000-square-foot Searing wing opened in 2007, essentially doubling the museum's size. (One of its galleries is shown at right.*)
A new 60-stop iPod audio tour of the permanent collection also debuted in late spring 2007.
Using rental iPods, visitors now stroll the galleries viewing video images of each work and listening to period music and narration by Ringling staff and "characters" voices. The tour (starting in May) is $5 per person.
Upcoming art exhibitions include “Grandma Moses: Grandmother to the Nation,” which will run from Jan. 26, 2008 to April 13, 2008, and Jacob Lawrence: Three Series of Prints – Hiroshima, Genesis and Toussaint L’Ouverture, running from Jan. 26, 2008 through May 4, 2008.
Experience Three: Circus Memorabilia
Ringling was the father of the modern circus and his legacy still reigns today with “Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus.
That “Greatest Show on Earth” still delights kids and adults alike as it travel by train to cities and towns across America.
Two buildings on the site house circus art, exhibits and artifacts. The first is an older building – with impressive costumes, historic circus memorabilia, circus street parade floats (see wagon at right*) and even huge circus rail cars.
In the Tibbals Learning Center, the newest, 30,000-square-foot circus building, you’ll see an amazing site – the 3,800-square-foot Howard Brothers Model Circus.
This extravaganza of circus “miniatures” was created over a period of decades by Howard Tibbals (shown at left with one of his miniature scenes*), who years ago asked permission to use the Ringling name for his circus creation.
Interestingly, he was told “no” and, thus, it was called the Howard Brothers circus.
But it’s painstakingly based on the actual Ringling circus of the 1930s.
The ¾-inch-to-a-foot-scale replicas include 1,300 performers, 800 animals, 7,000 folding chairs, 900 sets of silverware on tables in the “dining tent” and 55 rail cars.
You’ll see eight main tents (including the menagerie tent shown above*), practice rings, blacksmith shops, the side show area and more. The railroad yard is a scale model of the rail yard of the day in Knoxville, TN.
Vintage video footage, animated features, and a timed light sequence add to the realism.
Once you’ve enjoyed viewing the entire miniature collection, head for the second floor; two viewing spots deliver a bird’s eye perspective of the miniature collection.
This new building also houses circus posters, other miniatures and circus street parade miniatures.
Experience Four: Roses and Natural Places
The estate has a relaxing eco-side that’s quite endearing. An insider’s secret? While you definitely need to pay admission (signified by a colored wrist band) to enter the main buildings on the grounds, you’re free to stroll the grounds for free.
The grounds are open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. You’ll walk amid huge banyan trees, quiet natural alcoves and multiple ponds.
Many times of the year, you’ll soak in a fragrant aroma emminating from Mable Ringling’s personal Rose Gardens (shown below*).
Originally planted by Mable in 1913 and restored in 1991, the 27,225-square-foot Rose Garden preceded construction of both the Ca d’Zan and the Museum of Art.
Visitors enjoy strolling the garden area set up by Mable Ringling in 1913. Today's garden features rose varieties she favored in the original plantings.
While none of Mable’s original plants have survived, varieties on display are the specific types she chose for her garden. These include China, Tea, Polyanthus and Hybrid Perpetuals.
Today, the garden is lovingly maintained by local garden club enthusiasts. Statues greet visitors strolling through the garden.
Containing some 1,200 plants, the garden is also home to a hybrid rose created and named by Ron Mallory, the garden’s curator. As you stroll, you’ll view eight tree roses, 36 grandifloras, 64 shrubs, 73 old garden roses, 204 floribundas, 246 hybrid teas and 506 miniature roses.
Just beyond Mable’s garden area are two test rose gardens, consisting of hybrid teas, grandiflora, floribunda, shrub, landscape, climbers, miniature and mini-flora.
These test gardens are the only All-America Rose Selection (AARS), American Rose Society Award of Excellence (AOE) and Mini Rose Test Garden in Florida. They are among only 24 of those nationwide.
Beyond the Rose Garden is Mable’s Secret Garden, where Mable planted flowers given to her by guests. Today, both Mable and husband John are buried here. It’s a quiet place just off to the side of the main mansion alongside Sarasota Bay.
Experience Five: Asolo Theater
The Historic Asolo Theater shows a 30-minute film about the Ringling legacy.
To understand the Ringlings and their legacy, take time to view “The Life and Times of John and Mable Ringling,” a historic film shown several times daily inside the visitor center’s historic Asolo Theater.
The 30-minute film delves into late 19th century America and the important role of circus entertainment. Of course, it also focuses on the Ringlings and their legacy.
The film is narrated by actor Hal Holbrook. It was produced by WEDU-TV, the PBS station in the Tampa Bay area.
A second, seven-minute film about the theater itself will air immediately before the Ringling film.
But the film isn’t the only reason to visit the theater. This theater is a true historical jewel.
Constructed in Asolo, Italy, in 1798, the theater was acquired by the museum’s first director, and was transported to the estate piece by piece in the early 1950s.
It first opened on the Ringling Estate in 1952. The building was in such bad shape by the late 1990s, however, that it was condemned.
Fortunately, the Asolo Theater was rescued. It was moved and is now safely cocooned within the new visitor center. It serves as a venue for showings of the Ringling film and, at select times, is the scene of Sarasota cultural events (as in the photo above right*).
Check with the museum upon arrival for the show times.
Just for Kids
While the estate has a strong appeal for adults, a newly redesigned “Handz-On program” for kids is offered every Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., excluding holidays. It’s free with a paid museum admission.
Children and their adult partners take an adventurous stroll through the galleries with family activity sheets. Kids will meet with museum educators at the Exploration Station, where they’ll discover the materials and tools it takes to make art. In the Handz-On activity area, they'll make their own art.
Explorations and activities change monthly. For example, kids might explore the fabrics of the Ca d'Zan, learn the ways fabrics are made and decorated and design their own fabric pattern. Or, they might study photos in a special exhibition and then investigate photographic equipment and tools, and make their own photographic prints.
If You Go
Admission to the main buildings (the art museum complex, the circus buildings, the rose garden and the Ca d'Zan) and a showing of the Ringling film is a bargain by big-city standards.
Tickets are $19 for adults, $16 for seniors; and $6 for students, children 6-17, FL teachers with ID, and active U.S. military with ID. There is no charge for kids under 6 nor for museum members.
The estate is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., seven days a week except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Free parking is available across the street from the main gate.
The visitor center (shown below*) houses a ticket area; restrooms; a 2,800-square-foot, two-level museum shop; and a wonderful museum café called Treviso. Stop in for a sandwich or other creative snack or meal. That venue has a full bar set-up.
Treviso offers both inside and outdoor seating In the winter or when weather is cooler, the outdoor patio (shown above*) with its umbrella tables offers lovely views of two ponds and the estate.
If you happen to be in town on the third Thursday of each month, head for the museum and pay $5 for “Cocktails at the Ca D’Zan.” This has become a popular social event in Sarasota. It features live music, a cash bar, food for purchase, and, most importantly, a great view of the sunset spectacle over Sarasota Bay.
If you are anywhere near Sarasota on a Florida visit, be sure to put the Ringling estate on your list of “must see” cultural venues. It’s a little bit this, a little bit that -- with a surprising depth of cultural diversity and high-quality art, artifacts and architecture.
For More Information
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (the solarium in the villa is shown at right*)
5401 Bay Shore Rd.,
Sarasota, FL 34243
Phone: 941-359- 5700
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and Ringling Estate. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.